The organic movement’s pioneers tell their story in new documentary

Courtesy of Mark Kitchell
“Evolution of Organic,” a new documentary by San Francisco filmmaker Mark Kitchell, details the origins of a movement that grew out of the vision of West Marin food producers, among others.    

The organic food movement exploded in the early ’80s after a representative from Berkeley’s Chez Panisse visited Bolinas with a peculiar request. As detailed in a new documentary by San Franciscan filmmaker Mark Kitchell, forager Sibella Kraus came out to Star Route Farm in search of ingredients for a mesclun—a Provencal salad of small, leafy greens—and her desire left farmer Warren Weber exasperated. “I pointed at one field where there were tiny greens and said they wouldn’t be ready for well over six weeks,” Mr. Weber recalled. “She said, ‘That’s what we want!’ and I said, ‘What do you mean? That’s not lettuce.’ I can remember… looking over my shoulder hoping no one else was looking at me doing this because it was such a ridiculous thing to be doing.” Soon, mesclun was a rage and the farm-to-fork movement had taken off. “We all love the baby lettuce story,” Mr. Kitchell said to the Light. “It was the organic movement’s first big success.” Mr. Kitchell tells the history of that movement in “Evolution of Organic” with the help of the pioneers and outliers who created it, many of whom hail from West Marin. Wendy Johnson of Green Gulch Farm, Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery and John Wick of the Marin Carbon Project appear to discuss the movement’s meager beginnings and their hopes for its potential to combat global climate change through carbon sequestration. The film has a brisk tempo and is buoyantly narrated by actress and Bolinas resident Frances McDormand, with various video montages of vintage farming backed by Country Joe and the Fish and the Grateful Dead. Mr. Kitchell, who wrote, directed and produced the film, spent his summers as a youth in Bolinas, where he remembers helping to build a cluster of driftwood houses on RCA Beach with other high schoolers. (The sheriff’s office burned the houses on New Year’s Day in 1971, he said.) Although organic farming was not on his radar while he attended film school at New York University or worked in Hollywood as a location scout, Mr. Kitchell has long been drawn to crafting films that delve into social movements. His 1990 documentary “Berkley in the Sixties” was nominated for an Academy Award, and in 2014 he directed and produced  “A Fierce Green Fire,” about the history of environmental activism. “Issue-driven films are good and valuable, but I find them unsatisfactory in terms of filmmaking and content,” he said. “You get much more out of a story if you make it about a movement. I do this by learning about the people and what they were fighting for.” Mr. Weber, whose Star Route Farm is the oldest organic farm in California, is featured prominently, and he makes a plea in the film against the dilution of the organic movement. “A lot of people say, ‘Local is fine and I don’t need to be organic,’ and I’ll say, ‘Wait a second, this is a no-no,’” he said. “Because that is taking us back to the ’70s, when it was a wink and a handshake. Organic standards mean something.” “Evolution of Organic” shows at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 3 at the Dance Palace Community Center, followed by a panel discussion featuring John Wick of Marin Carbon Project and Nicasio Native Grass Ranch, Arron Wilder of Table Top Farm, Jim Baum of Marin Community Farm Stands, Loren Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch and Caymin Ackerman of Big Mesa Farm. Tickets are $10 and proceeds benefit the community center.